'Political prisoners appear to have been held in detention camps in appalling conditions,' says Amnesty. 'Former prisoners report that many of their inmates had died of cold, hunger or untreated illnesses. Prisoners appear to have been effectively deprived of all rights.' Some categories of 'special' political prisoners were taken to detention centres which received no food beyond what inmates could produce themselves, and many were said to have died.
Obtaining information on conditions in North Korea is extremely difficult. Foreigners are strictly controlled, and any North Korean having unauthorised contact with a visitor risks arrest. Amnesty was allowed to visit the country in 1991, but has been excluded since. The organisation's report, its first since 1979, is based mainly on reports from the families of political prisoners and people believed to be in detention, as well as former prisoners.
Dozens of people are executed every year after unfair trials for 'ideological divergence', 'crimes against the state' or economic offences, sometimes in public or in front of fellow prisoners, says Amnesty. The criminal law includes provisions so vague that people can be imprisoned for being 'in revolt', or encouraging others 'to attempt . . . the undermining of the Republic'. But people are often held in 're-education through labour' camps without being charged or tried, some of them since the 1960s. The authorities refuse to confirm that they are being detained.
Among prisoners of conscience listed by Amnesty are people taken into custody because a family member has been accused of a political offence, or has applied for asylum in another country. The organisation believes many Japanese women who went to North Korea with their Korean husbands were subsequently detained.